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Helping hands: event profs embrace corporate social responsibility

Access reveals how the events industry is embracing corporate social responsibility by bringing aid to those in their darkest hour.

For most of us, it is difficult to comprehend what it must be like to live a life in abject poverty.

But despite the relative comfort that we live in, we have become accustomed to the almost weekly news of terrorism, the ever-expanding column inches on the refugee crisis and seeing more and more people suffering on our streets.

It is during times of uncertainty when acts of kindness and charity are most welcome.

Quietly, without any bells and whistles, and with no expectation of recognition, the men and women of the events industry are going to great lengths to give aid to those who need the most help.

From helping construct safe shelters in the Calais and Dunkirk refugee camps to training and supporting the UK’s growing homeless and ex-homeless population, the events industry is bringing a little light to those in their darkest hour.

Thirty years ago, Bob Geldof stood onstage at the very first Live Aid and showed the world how much the events industry could give.

“If there’s a problem, you have to go out and solve it,” he said, appealing to the 1.9bn people who watched the live broadcast on TV.

Event professionals from every sector are proving that philanthropic work does not reduce or impede commercial success. Often it serves to strengthen and diversify a business’ core model.

Understanding this work as something that can be an intrinsic part of the day-to-day running of a business is an idea that has gained significant traction in recent years. The number of social enterprises in the UK has increased by nearly 50,000 since 2015 (according to government data), making a difference to local communities and charities.

This sea change is a result of the ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ mantra that has gripped the events industry, in which it is unfathomable that a tent would be shipped to a landfill when it could be of better use to someone in need.

“It’s people in need and we can help”
The war in Syria has caused an almost unimaginable number of casualties and displacements. The conflict has reached such extremes that in January 2014 the United Nations announced that it was no longer able to keep track of the death toll in the country.

To date, more than a million refugees have fled their homes and entered Europe searching for a safer life. Many are stuck in limbo, unable to settle and unable to move on. There are an estimated 5,000 people currently stranded in Calais and more than 6,000 in the lesser-known Dunkirk settlement, all hoping to be granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

In 2015 festivals such as Bestival and Glastonbury recycled the huge amount of tents, wellies and sleeping bags abandoned at their sites by sending them to refugee camps in France.

For Bestival’s island producer Kate Jackman, the reason is simple: “It’s people in need and we can help. There is a huge amount of camping equipment left over at the end of festivals, so we kill two birds with one stone.”

While Bestival regulates who is involved in their tent salvage scheme to avoid theft, all charities, groups and individuals are welcome to join the effort. In 2015, some even transported camping equipment across the Channel to Calais.

“There were a couple of groups who joined,” says Jackman.“They were literally a bunch of ticket-buying, festival-going party people who just decided they would get a van and be really lovely and helpful. Some of them weren’t under the banner of a particular charity, they were just Good Samaritans.”

Last year, volunteers at Bestival collected more than 500 sleeping bags and hundreds of pairs of wellies, some of which were sent to Calais and others to refugees in the Greek Islands. While the refugee crisis has only recently gained significant attention in the Western world, Jackman is eager to point out that the problem is both long term and global.

“It was the first year that Bestival helped European refugees but we have always collected for international refugees. A few years ago we helped refugees in Uganda and Somalia in conjunction with the International Scouts by shipping 1,000 tents overseas. We’re now in talks with the Rotary to help other international causes, but of course we would still rather people took their tents home with them.”

“We could use in-house resources in a big way”
Like Bestival, production company Theme Traders became involved in aid work because they saw a clear need and were in the perfect position to help. The agency donated one of their 18-tonne lorries to the Help Refugees movement.

“The Help Calais work came about simply because so many of our staff were keen to help,” says director Becky Handley. “I did a bit of investigating and discovered that there were so many drop off points for donations in London that donations were being turned away because they were not able to transport them quick enough to the relevant areas in Calais. I quickly realised that we could use our resources in-house to help out in a big way.”

The campaign, spearheaded by TV presenter Dawn O’Porter, received donations from thousands of members of the public and several well-known businesses. The lorry supplied by Theme Traders enabled the campaign to transport the much-needed equipment and supplies to the Calais camp.

A separate humanitarian effort, coordinated by Dismaland set designers Block9, saw temporary shelters constructed and sent to Calais by volunteers from the events industry.

The volunteers included eight members of the Connection Crew and its Academy, a social enterprise that employs and trains ex-homeless people, preparing them for work in the crewing industry.

“We contacted Connection Crew, who were very responsive and who we’ve worked with quite a lot over the years,” says Block9 producer Paula Clark. “We developed the initial design to build drawings, handled the orders and managed the construction of the shelters at our workshop in Stratford, London.”

Charlie Dorman, co-director of Connection Crew, said: “The get-up-and-go spirit of the campaign really resonated with us; passionate people coming together and taking action to make a difference where it’s really needed.”

The team of volunteers constructed 30 shelters in around three weeks, all of which were then sent to Calais to provide much-needed support for refugees.

Changing business with social enterprise
While their work for the Calais camp was a unique reaction to an unprecedented situation, philanthropic work has always been a fundamental part of Connection Crew’s business model.

Established in 2005, Connection Crew have created a form of social enterprise that benefits their business and their clients while making a real difference to the lives of ex-homeless people in London.

Homelessness has become an even more significant issue in the capital in recent years, with the total number of people sleeping rough in 2014/15 reaching 7,581 (a 16 per cent rise on 2013/14).

The idea for Connection Crew, says director Warren Rogers, grew from charitable roots.

“We were founded as part of the homelessness charity The Connection at St Martin’s 10 years ago. Back then, social enterprise was a pretty fresh and innovative concept.

“Successful social enterprises must have a sharp commercial edge. Healthy trading is required in order to be able to do any social good in the first place. Equally, the social achievements generated should also serve to fuel commercial success.”

In the early days, the intention was for the entire crew to be composed of ex-homeless people, but it soon became clear there was something missing.

“We needed to bring experienced crew into the mix to help nurture and up-skill new and inexperienced crew members from homeless backgrounds,” says Rogers. “After some experimenting we settled at 25 per cent ex-homeless crew. Getting to this balance meant that we have been able to continue to create job opportunities for people with a history of homelessness for nearly a decade.”

Underbelly, Media 10 and Production Bureau are among the companies who hold corporate social responsibility (CSR) accounts with Connection Crew. The account holders helped create more than 11,000 hours of work for ex-homeless people in 2015. Underbelly topped the CSR account list last year, which quantifies individual client contributions for the year.

“It’s a great bonus that we can work with ex-homeless people and help them,” says Underbelly director Charlie Wood. “But the main reason we use Connection Crew is because they produce good people. They produce people for the right type of work; they listen to our requirements and produce people accordingly. They’re just great to work with.” 

“Our ethos is to assist others”
Connection Crew is far from the only events company dedicated to helping underprivileged members of society achieve their full potential. Drapes and rigging specialists Blackout have long been supporters of various charities and initiatives, says Blackout’s human resources manager Adelaide Johannsen.

“Our ethos has always been to assist others, but on balance we feel the support we can offer, as a service or experience, is far more valuable than the monetary worth that could be spared.”

This realisation led Blackout to team up with Grenfell Housing & Training to provide underprivileged young people with valuable industry experience and training.

“We were inspired by Grenfell’s aim to offer such individuals a brighter future, so we commenced with the programme in September 2014, hoping to develop key work skills.”

For Johannsen, the social enterprise scheme helps the company give back to the community by making use of the talents and resources at their disposal. She believes that the variety and the excitement of the events industry make it ideal for this kind of work.

“The nature of working to deadlines, often for live productions, and the creativity required for key events means young people are motivated to succeed within our thrilling industry.”

Undoubtedly, we can all do more. But as these companies show, the events industry is primed to embrace corporate social responsibility. The skills used to put on an event can also be used to transform and help those less fortunate. It’s our responsibility – and our privilege.

This feature originally appeared in the February issue of Access All Areas, out now.